“Gaijin“. It seems we hear the word every day. For some, it’s merely harmless shorthand for “gaikokujin” (foreigner). Even Wikipedia (that online wall for intellectual graffiti artists) had a section on “political correctness“, claiming illiterate and oversensitive Westerners had misunderstood their Japanese word.
I take a different view. Gaijin is not merely a word. It is an epithet. About the billions of people who are not Japanese. It makes attributions to them that go beyond nationality.
Let’s deal with basic counterarguments: Calling gaijin a mere contraction of gaikokujin is not historically accurate. According to ancient texts and prewar dictionaries [see Endnote], “gaijin” (or “guwaijin” in the contemporary rendering) once referred to Japanese people too. Anyone not from your village, in-group etc. was one. It was a way of showing you don’t belong here–even (according to my 1978 Kojien, Japan’s premier dictionary) “regarded as an enemy” (tekishi). Back then there were other (even more unsavory) words for foreigners anyway, so gaijin has a separate etymology from words specifically meaning “extranational”.
Even if you argue modern usage conflates, gaijin is still a loaded word, easily abused. Consider two nasty side effects:
1) “Gaijin” strips the world of diversity. Japan’s proportion of the world’s population is a little under 2%. In the gaijin binary worldview, you either are a Japanese or you’re not–an “ichi-ro” or a “ze-ro”. Thus you indicate the remaining 98% of the world are outsiders.
2) And always will be: A gaijin is a gaijin anytime, any place. The word is even used overseas by traveling/resident Japanese to describe non-Japanese, or rather, “foreigners in their own country”. Often without any apparent sense of irony or contradiction. Japanese outside of Japan logically must be foreigners somewhere! Not when everyone else is a gaijin.
Left unchallenged, this rubric encourages dreadful social science–ultimately creating a constellation of “us and them” differences (as opposed to possible similarities) for the ichiro culture vultures to guide their sextants by.
For those hung up on gaijin’s apparently harmless kanji (“outside person”), even that is indicative. The “koku” in gaikokujin refers specifically to country–a legal status you can change. The epithet doesn’t, effectively making classification a matter of birth status, physical appearance, race. Meaning once you get relegated to the “gaijin” group, you never get out.
Allow me to illustrate that with a joke from the American South:
Question: “What do you call a black man with a PhD in neurobiology from Harvard, who works as a brain surgeon at Johns Hopkins, earns seven figures a year, and runs one of the world’s largest philanthropies?”
Answer: “N*gg*r” (rhymes with “bigger”).
Hardy har. Now let’s rephrase:
Question: “What do you can a white man with degrees from top-tier schools, who has lived in Japan for more than two decades, contributes to Japanese society as an university educator, is fluent in Japanese, and has Japanese citizenship?”
As a naturalized citizen I resemble that remark. But nobody who knows my nationality calls me a gaikokujin anymore–it’s factually incorrect. But there are plenty of people (especially foreigners) who don’t hesitate to call me a gaijin–often pejoratively.
Thus gaijin is a caste. No matter how hard you try to acculturalize yourself, become literate and lingual, even make yourself legally inseparable from the putative “naikokujin” (whoever they are), you’re still “not one of us”.
Moreover, factor in Japan’s increasing number of children of international marriages. Based upon whether or not they look like their foreign parent (again, “gaijin-ppoi“), there are cases where they get treated differently, even adversely, by society. Thus the rubric of gaijin even encourages discrimination against its own citizens.
This must be acknowledged. Even though trying to get people to stop using gaijin overnight would be like swatting flies, people should know of its potential abuses. At least people should stop arguing that it’s the same as gaikokujin.
For gaijin is essentially “n*gg*r”, and should be likewise obsolesced.
Fortunately, our media is helping out, long since adding gaijin to the list of “housou kinshi yougo” (words unfit for broadcast).
So can we. Apply Japan’s slogan against undesirable social actions: “Shinai, sasenai” (I won’t use it, I won’t let it be used.)
Arudou Debito is co-author of Handbook for Newcomers, Migrants, and Immigrants to Japan. A fuller version of this article at www.debito.org/kumegaijinissue.html
Sources for ancient texts and dictionaries concerning the word Gaijin:
１）言海（大正１４年出版）pg 299: 「外人：外（ホカ）ノ人、外国人」(Courtesy 北海道立図書館）
２）A. Matsumura (ed.), Daijisen (大辞泉), (p. 437, 1st ed., vol. 1). (1998). Tokyo: Shogakukan. “がいじん。【外人】② 仲間以外の人。他人。「外人もなき所に兵具をととのへ」〈平家・一〉”
３）”外人”. Kōjien (5). (1998). Iwanami. ISBN 4000801112. “がいじん【外人】① 仲間以外の人。疎遠の人。連理秘抄「外人など上手多からむ座にては」② 敵視すべきな人。平家一「外人もなき所に兵具をととのへ」”
４）A. Matsumura (ed.), Daijirin (大辞林), (p. 397, 9th ed., vol. 1). (1989). Tokyo: Sanseido. “がいじん【外人】② そのことに関係のない人。第三者。「外人もなき所に兵具をととのへ／平家一」”
５）「外人もなき所に兵具をとゝのへ」 （Assembling arms where there are no gaijin） 高木, 市之助; 小沢正夫, 渥美かをる, 金田一春彦 (1959). 日本古典文学大系: 平家物語 (in Japanese). 岩波書店, 123. ISBN 4-00-060032-X.
６）「源平両家の童形たちのおのおのござ候ふに、かやうの外人は然るべからず候」（Since the children of both Genji and Heike are here, such a gaijin is not appropriate to stay together.） 鞍馬天狗
(All courtesy of source footnotes in Wikipedia entry on “Gaijin”, retrieved August 1, 2008.)